Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, review by Bruce Jacobs
One can perhaps best hear the wheels clicking behind the voice of the unnamed coastal Ireland narrator of Claire-Louise Bennet's intriguing collection of stories in the opening to "Control Knobs": "When I first moved in here all three control knobs on the cooker were intact and working just fine. Three control knobs on a cooker doesn't sound like very many to most people because, nowadays, in addition to hardly anyone ever saying nowadays, very few people own what's known as a mini-kitchen, and those people who do are probably the same people who continue to unfurl the phrase nowadays."
First published by Dublin's small Stinging Fly Press, Pond, in its quirky structure and language, calls to mind the Irish fathers of literary modernism Joyce and Beckett. But then it also echoes Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Carroll's Alice, Thoreau's Walden and, more contemporarily, Strout's Olive Kitteridge, as well as anything by Nicholson Baker. In response to The Skinny's question regarding antecedents, Bennett demurred: "Readers will enjoy making their own connections in terms of stylistic affinities. I have a great many predecessors."
Bennett's narrator is a funny, self-deprecating, observant, opinionated, earthy woman whose mind grasps every detailed string of her rural life and gives it a pull to reveal her curiosity and contented solitude. Nothing is missed: her neighbors, her garden and compost heap, a new bicycle ("one that felt sturdy and safe at night along roads where there is no light, one that could go up hills"), local cows and dogs, the mailbox ("occasionally I am quite diligent about emptying it and other times my mind is such that I just don't care enough"), food ("this is not the time of year to be eating granola and salads and caper berries, let me tell you"), and her intermittent men ("eighteen months was pretty well as much as we could expect from a relationship based almost entirely upon avid fornication"). What a treasure, this woman!
Playfully, Bennett taps her literary predecessors--whether centering one story on the 1963 dystopian survival novel The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer, or like Joyce and Carroll, scattering another with made-up tonal nonsense phrases like shally shally, ganny ganny, wzm wzm, whoosh whoosh, and shap shap. The title Pond not only suggests Thoreau's retreat, but also refers to the shallow pool behind the narrator's cottage next to which a neighbor plants the hand-scribbled warning sign pond "as if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap."
In the short two-page concluding story, Bennett abruptly shifts to the third person, as if needing to collect herself and step back from such deep immersion into the soul of the narrator. After closing this collection, readers may also want to step back and absorb all that burbles along in Pond so enjoyably--even though the narrator elsewhere advises: "It's a devil to know what to take seriously."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.